Tara Wesely is attending the Rivers for Life meeting in Thailand. She is assistant manager of environmental sustainability at Aveda Corp. and a fellow with the Environmental Leadership Program.

Monday, 1 Dec 2003

RASI SALAI, Thailand

Bamboo amazes me. You can eat it, cook with it, build with it, even decorate with it. I slept on a woven bamboo floor last night, surrounded by bamboo walls and beams in one of the huts constructed for the Second International Meeting of Dam-Affected People and Their Allies (or Rivers for Life, for short).

Very little of the construction of this village was underway just five days ago. Construction that was supposed to begin several months ago was delayed by significant flooding during the rainy season, and then rice harvesting took priority, and then the need to appease the spirits of the river.

If you build it, will they come?

But that was the situation five days ago. Today, we are awaiting the arrival of some 300 people from some 60 countries around the world. Many have traveled for several days and across continents to participate in this meeting.

Rather than pad the pockets of a hotel, organizers wanted to be able to benefit Rasi Salai, a dam-affected community. Rasi Salai villagers constructed a dormitory, washrooms, and bathrooms of handmade bricks. These structures will become the School of the River, an environmental education center for visitors and residents in this area. Additional temporary structures, nearly 20 sleeping and workshop huts, were hand-built in the last two weeks. The crew from Pak Mun (a dam-affected community we will visit later in the week) was noticeably efficient — clearly, they have had practice, having built long-lasting Mun River Village #1 (Ban Mae Man Yuen Nueng) to protest the construction of the Pak Mun dam in their community.

When I arrived yesterday, the place was looking rather festive, with banners waving and music pumping. Today construction crews are still pounding out some last-minute structures, but we are mostly ready, just waiting for the people to arrive.

Susanne Wong of International Rivers Network, one of the many meeting organizers, and I went in search of someone who could walk us to the Mun River (Mae nam mun) so we could mark the walk with blue ribbon and signs for the participants. We asked someone whose Thai was better than ours (most anyone) how to ask to “go to the river” (Pai mae nam mun?) hoping that someone would be willing to walk us there. A couple of people pointed us in the general direction, but we really wanted an actual guide. Instead, we were roped into moving tables to the main sala to set up the interpretation equipment. A number of languages will get playtime at this meeting: Chinese, English, French, Hindi, Indonesian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Thai.

Several tables later, we found a villager named Mil who was willing to guide us and together we made our way to the river, past some cows, a patch filled with four-leaf clovers (!), and some serious mud. Fishers in wooden boats dotted the horizon. The river seemed alive and well. We kicked off our shoes, rolled up our pants, and waded in — how could we not? There is just something about water …